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Problems as Heart of mathematics

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Author(s): P. R. Halmos

Source: The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 87, No. 7 (Aug. - Sep., 1980), pp. 519-524

Published by: Mathematical Association of America

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2321415

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http://www.jstor.org

THE HEART OF MATHEMATICS

P. R. HALMOS

Introduction. What does mathematics really consistof? Axioms(such as the parallelpos-

tulate)?Theorems(suchas thefundamental theoremof algebra)?Proofs(suchas Godel's proof

of undecidability)?Concepts (such as sets and classes)? Definitions(such as the Menger

definitionof dimension)?Theories(such as categorytheory)?Formulas(such as Cauchy's

integralformula)?Methods(such as themethodof successiveapproximations)?

Mathematicscould surelynot existwithouttheseingredients; theyare all essential.It is

neverthelessa tenablepointof viewthatnone of themis at theheartof the subject,thatthe

mathematician's main reason for existenceis to solve problems,and that,therefore, what

mathematics reallyconsistsof is problemsand solutions.

"Theorem"is a respectedwordin thevocabularyof mostmathematicians, but "problem"is

notalwaysso. "Problems,"as theprofessionals sometimes use theword,are lowlyexercisesthat

are assignedto studentswhowilllaterlearnhowto provetheorems. Theseemotionalovertones

are,however,notalwaystherightones.

The commutativity of addition for naturalnumbersand the solvabilityof polynomial

equationsoverthecomplexfieldare boththeorems, butone of themis regardedas trivial(near

easy to understand,

thebasic definitions, easy to prove),and theotheras deep (thestatement is

not obvious,the proofcomes via seeminglydistantconcepts,the resulthas manysurprising

applications).To findan unbeatablestrategy and to locate all thezeroesof the

fortic-tac-toe

Riemannzeta functionare both problems,but one of themis trivial(anybodywho can

understand thedefinitionscan findtheanswerquickly,withalmostno intellectual effortand no

feelingof accomplishment, and the answerhas no consequencesof interest), and the otheris

deep (no one has foundtheansweralthoughmanyhave soughtit,theknownpartialsolutions

requiregreateffortand providegreatinsight,and an affirmative answerwould implymany

non-trivialcorollaries).Moral: theoremscan be trivialand problemscan be profound.Those

who believethattheheartof mathematics consistsof problemsare not necessarily wrong.

ProblemBooks. If youwantedto makea contribution to mathematics bywritingan articleor

a book on mathematicalproblems,how should you go about it? Should the problemsbe

elementary shouldtheybe at thelevelofundergraduates

(pre-calculus), or graduatestudents, or

should theybe researchproblemsto whichno one knowsthe answer?If the solutionsare

known,shouldyour workcontainthemor not? Should the problemsbe arrangedin some

systematic order(in whichcase theverylocationof theproblemis somehintto itssolution),or

shouldtheybe arrangedin some"random"way?Whatshouldyouexpectthereaderto getfrom

yourwork:fun,techniques, or facts(or someof each)?

All possibleanswersto thesequestionshave alreadybeengiven.Mathematical problemshave

quitean extensive whichis stillgrowing

literature, and flowering.A visitto thepartof thestacks

labeledQA43 (Libraryof Congressclassification) can be an excitingand memorablerevelation,

and thereare richsourcesof problemsscatteredthroughotherpartsof the stackstoo. What

followsis a quick reviewof some not quite randomlyselectedbut probablytypicalproblem

collectionsthatevena casual librarysearchcould uncover.

The authorreceivedhis Ph.D. fromthe Universityof Illinois; he has held positionsat (consecutively)Illinois,

Syracuse,Chicago, Michigan,Hawaii, Indiana, Santa Barbara, and Indiana, withvisitingpositionsfor various

periods at the Institutefor Advanced Study,Montevideo,Miami, Harvard, Tulane, Universityof Washington

(Seattle),Berkeley,Edinburgh,and Perth.He has publishedeightor morebooks and manyarticles;he has held a

GuggenheimFellowshipand is a memberof the Royal Society of Edinburghand the HungarianAcademy of

Sciences.The MAA has givenhim a ChauvenetPrize and two Ford awards. He has been active in the affairsof

both the AMS and the MAA, and will become editorof thisMoNrHLY on Jan. 1, 1982.

His mathematicalinterestsare in measureand ergodictheory,algebraiclogic,and operatorson Hilbertspace,

withexcursionsto probability,statistics,topologicalgroups,and Boolean algebras.-Editors

519

520 P. R. HALMOS [Aug.-Sept.

to offerto themathematical publicis theone thatconsistsofresearchproblems.Your problems

could becomesolvedin a fewweeks,or months,or years,and yourworkwould,therefore, be

out of date muchmorequicklythanmostmathematical exposition.If you are notof thestature

of Hilbert,you can neverbe surethatyourproblemswon'tturnout to be trivial,or impossible,

or,perhapsworseyet,just orthogonalto thetruththatwe all seek-wronglyphrased,leading

nowhere,and havingno lastingvalue.

A listof researchproblemsthathas had a greateffecton themathematical researchof the

twentieth centurywas offeredby Hilbertin the last year of the nineteenth centuryat the

International Congressof Mathematicians in Paris[3]. The firstof Hilbert's23 problemsis the

continuumhypothesis: is everyuncountablesubsetof theset R of real numbersin one-to-one

correspondence with R? Even in 1900 the questionwas no longernew, and althoughgreat

progresshas been made sincethenand somethinkthattheproblemis solved,thereare others

who feelthatthefactsare farfromfullyknownyet.

Hilbert'sproblemsare of varyingdepthsand touchmanypartsof mathematics. Some are

geometric (iftwotetrahedra have thesamevolume,can theyalwaysbe partitioned intothesame

finitenumberof smallertetrahedra so thatcorresponding piecesare congruent?-theansweris

no), and someare number-theoretic (is 2'2 transcendental?-the answeris yes). Severalof the

problemsare stillunsolved.Much oftheinformation accumulatedup to 1974was broughtup to

date and collectedin one volumein 1976[5],but themathematical community's did

curiosity

not stop there-a considerablenumberof both expository and substantive contributionshas

been made sincethen.

P6lya-Szego.Perhapsthe mostfamousand stillrichestproblembook is thatof Polya and

Szego [6],whichfirstappearedin 1925and was republished (in Englishtranslation) in 1972and

1976.In itsoverhalfa century of vigorouslife(so far)it has been themainstayof uncountably

manyseminars, a standardreference book,and an almostinexhaustible sourceof examination

questionsthatare bothinspiringand doable. Its levelstretchesfromhighschoolto thefrontiers

of research.The firstproblemasks about thenumberof waysto makechangefora dollar,the

denominations of theavailablecoinsbeing1,5, 10,25, and 50,of course;in theoriginaledition

thequestionwas about Swissfrancs,and thedenominations were 1, 2, 5, 10,20, and 50. From

thisinnocentbeginning theproblemsproceed,in gentlebutchallenging steps,to theHadamard

threecirclestheorem,Tchebychevpolynomials, latticepoints,determinants, and Eisenstein's

theoremaboutpowerserieswithrationalcoefficients.

Dormre. "The triumph of mathematics" is theoriginaltitle(in German)of Dorrie'sbook [1].

This is a book thatdeservesto be muchbetterknownthanit seemsto be. It is eclectic,it is

spread over 2000 years of history,and it rangesin difficulty fromelementary arithmetic to

materialthatis frequently thesubjectof graduatecourses.

It contains,forinstance,thefollowing curiosityattributedto Newton(Arithmetica Universa-

lis, 1707).If "a cowsgrazeb fieldsbarein c days,a' cowsgrazeb' fieldsbarein c' days,a" cows

grazeb" fieldsbare in c" days,whatrelationexistsbetweentheninemagnitudes a to c"? It is

assumedthatall fieldsprovidethe same amountof grass,thatthe dailygrowthof the fields

remainsconstant,and thatall thecows eat thesame amounteach day." Answer:

( b bc ac

det b' b'c' a'c' = 0.

\b" b"c" a"c"

The problemslean moretowardgeometry else,buttheyincludealso Catalan's

thananything

question about the numberof ways of forminga productof n prescribedfactorsin a

systemthatis totallynon-commutative

multiplicative ("how manydifferent

and non-associative

1980] THE HEART OF MATHEMATICS 521

Fermat-Gaussimpossibility theorem("the sum of two cubic numberscannot be a cubic

number," Problem 21).

Two moreexamplesshouldgivea fairidea of theflavorof thecollectionas a whole:"every

quadrilateralcan be consideredas a perspectiveimageof a square"(Problem72), and "at what

pointof theearth'ssurfacedoes a perpendicularly suspendedrod appearthelongest?"(Problem

94). The styleand theattitudeare old-fashioned,but manyof theproblemsare of theeternally

interestingkind;thisis an excellentbook to browsein.

Dorrie's) has exactly100 problems,and theyare genuinelyelementary and good solid fun.

Whensomeonesays"problembook" mostpeoplethinkof something likethisone,and,indeed,

it is an outstanding exemplarof thespecies.The problemsare,however,notequallyinteresting

or equallydifficult. Theyillustrate, moreover, anotheraspectof problemsolving:itis sometimes

almostimpossibleto guesshowdifficult a problemis,or,forthatmatter, howinteresting itis,till

afterthesolutionis known.

Considerthreeexamples.(1) Does thereexista sequence{x1,x2,...,x10}of tennumberssuch

that(a) xl is containedin theclosedinterval[0,1],(b) xl and X2are containedin different halves

of [0,1],(c) each of X1,X2, and X3is contained in a different thirdof the interval, and so on up

through (2)

x1,x2,...,x10? If 3000 points in theplane are such thatno three lie on a straightline,

do thereexist1000triangles (meaninginterior and boundary)withthesepointsas verticessuch

thatno twoof thetriangles have anypointsin common?(3) Does thereexista discin theplane

(meaninginterior and boundaryofa circle)thatcontainsexactly71 latticepoints(pointsbothof

whosecoordinatesare integers)?

Of coursejudgmentsof difficulty and interests are subjective,so all I can do is recordmy

own evaluations.(1) is difficult and uninteresting, (2) is astonishingly easy -andmildlyinterest-

ing,and (3) is a littleharder thanit looks and even prima facie quiteinteresting. In defenseof

theseopinions,I mentionone criterionthatI used: if the numbers(10,1000,71)cannotbe

replaced by arbitrarypositiveintegers,I am inclinedto conclude that the corresponding

problemis specialenoughto be dull. It turnsout thattheanswerto (1) is yes,and Steinhaus

provesit by exhibiting a solution(quiteconcretely: x, =.95, x2=.05, x3=.34, x4=.74, etc.). He

proves(the same way) that the answeris yes for 14 insteadof 10, and, by threepages of

unpleasantlookingcalculation,thatthe answeris no for75. He mentionsthat,in fact,the

answeris yesfor17 and no foreveryintegergreaterthan17.I say that'sdull.For (2) and (3) the

answersare yes(forall n in place of 1000,or in place of 71).

othersof its kind),and, despitesome faults,it is a beautifuland excitingcontribution to the

problemliterature. a newkindof textbookof (finite-dimensional)

The book is, in effect, linear

algebraand linearanalysis.It beginswiththe definitions of (complex)vectorspaces and the

conceptsof lineardependenceand indepedence;thefirstproblemin thebook is to provethata

set consistingof just one vectorx is linearlyindependent if and only if x #0. The chapters

followone anotherin logicaldependence, just as theydo in textbooksof theconventional kind:

Linearoperators, Bilinearfunctionals,Normedspaces,etc.

The book is not expository prose,however;perhapsit could be called expository poetry.It

givesdefinitions and relatedexplanatory backgroundmaterialwithsome care. The mainbody

of thebook consistsof problems;theyare all formulated and theproblemis to

as assertions,

provethem.The proofsare notin thebook. Thereare references, but thereaderis toldthathe

willnotneed to consultthem.

The reallynewidea in thebook is itssharpfocus:thisis reallya book on functional analysis,

writtenfor an audience who is initiallynot even assumedto know what a matrixis. The

ingeniousidea of theauthorsis to presentto a beginning studenttheeasycase, thetransparent

522 P. R. HALMOS [Aug.-Sept.

case, thepurelyalgebraiccase of some of the

deepestanalyticfactsthatfunctional analystshave discovered.The subjectsdiscussedinclude

spectraltheory,the Toeplitz-Hausdorff theorem, the Hahn-Banachtheorem, partiallyordered

vectorspaces,momentproblems,dissipativeoperators, and manyothersuchanalyticsounding

results.A beautiful

coursecould be givenfromthisbook (I wouldloveto giveit),and a student

broughtup in sucha coursecould becomean infantprodigyfunctional analystin no time.

(A regrettable

featureof thebook, at leastin its Englishversion,is thewillfullyunorthodox

terminology. Example: the (canonical)projectionfroma vectorspace to a quotientspace is

called a "contraction",and what most people call a contractionis called a "compression".

Fortunately theconceptwhosestandardtechnicalnameis compression is notdiscussed.)

Klambauer.The last additionto theproblemliterature to be reviewedhereis Klambauer's

[4]. Its subjectis real analysis,and, althoughit does have someelementary problems, itslevelis

relatively advanced.It is an excellentand excitingbook. It does have some faults,of course,

includingsome misprints and some pointlessrepetitions, and the absence of an index is an

exasperating featurethatmakesthebook muchharderto use thanit oughtto be. It is,however,

a greatsourceof stimulating questions,of well knownand not so well knownexamplesand

counterexamples, and of standardand notso standardproofs.It shouldbe on thebookshelfof

everyproblemlover,of everyteacherof analysis(fromcalculuson up), and,forthatmatter, of

everyseriousstudentof thesubject.

The table of contentsrevealsthatthebook is dividedinto fourchapters:Arithmetic and

combinatorics, Inequalities,Sequencesand series,and Real functions. Here are someexamples

fromeach thatshould serveto illustratethe rangeof the work,perhapsto communicate its

flavor,and, I hope,stimulate theappetiteformore.

The combinatorics chapterasks for a proofof the "rule forcastingout nines" (is that

expressionfortestingthe divisibility of an integerby 9 via the sum of its decimaldigitstoo

old-fashioned to be recognized?), it asks how manyzeroesthereare at theend of thedecimal

expansionof 1000!,and it asksforthecoefficient ofxk in (1 +x+x2+ **_*+ Xn-)2. Alongwith

suchproblemsthereare also unmotivated formulasthatprobablyonlytheirfathercould love,

and thereare a fewcuriosities (such as theproblemthatsuggeststhe use of thewell ordering

principleto provetheirrationality of V ). A simplebutstriking oddityis thisstatement:ifm

and n are distinct positiveintegers, then

mn' nmn.

The chapteron inequalitiescontainsmanyof thefamousones (Holder,Minkowski, Jensen),

and manyothersthatare analytically valuablebut somewhatmorespecializedand therefore

somewhatlessfamous.A curiosity theanswerto whichveryfewpeopleare likelyto guessis this

one: foreach positiveintegern, whichis bigger

Vr f or Vin+ n?

The chapteron sequenceshas theonlydetailedand completediscussionthatI haveeverseen

of the fascinating(and non-trivial)

problemabout the convergencecsfthe infiniteprocess

indicatedby thesymbol

xxx

articleDe formulisexponentialibus replicatis,Acta Academica ScientiarumImperialisPetro-

politanae,1777.One moreteaser:whatis theclosureof theset of all real numbersof theform

/n- Vm (wheren and m are positiveintegers)?

The chapteron real functions is richtoo. It includesthetranscendentality

of e, someof the

basic properties

of theCantorset,Lebesgue'sexampleof a continuousbutnowheredifferentia-

ble function,

and F. Riesz'sproof(via the"risingsunlemma")thateverycontinuousmonotone

1980] THE HEART OF MATHEMATICS 523

almosteverywhere.

functionis differentiable There is a discussionof thatvestigialcuriosity

called Osgood's theorem,whichis theLebesgueboundedconvergence theoremforcontinuous

functionson a closed boundedinterval.The Weierstrasspolynomialapproximation theoremis

brokendown intobite-sizelemmas),and so is one of Gauss's proofsof the

here(intelligently

fundamental theoremofalgebra.For a finalexampleI mentiona questionthatshouldbe asked

continuouson

muchmoreoftenthatit probablyis: is therean exampleof a seriesof functions,

a closed bounded interval,that convergesabsolutelyand uniformly, but for which the

WeierstrassM-testfails?

assignedtaskis to pass on thetorchof mathematical knowledgeto the technicians, engineers,

humanists,

scientists, teachers,and, not least,researchmathematicians of tomorrow:do prob-

lemshelp?

Yes, theydo. The major part of everymeaningfullife is the solutionof problems;a

considerablepartof theprofessional engineers,

lifeof technicians, scientists,etc.,is thesolution

of mathematical problems.It is the dutyof all teachers,and of teachersof mathematics in

particular,to exposetheirstudentsto problemsmuchmorethanto facts.It is, perhaps,more

satisfyingto strideintoa classroomand givea polishedlectureon theWeierstrass M-testthanto

conducta fumble-and-blunder sessionthatendsin thequestion:"Is theboundednessassump-

tionof thetestnecessaryforits conclusion?"I maintain,however,thatsuch a fumblesession,

intendedto motivatethestudentto searchfora counterexample, is infinitelymorevaluable.

I have taughtcourseswhose entirecontentwas problemssolved by students (and then

presentedto theclass). The number of theorems thatthestudentsin such a course were exposed

to was approximately half the numberthattheycould have been exposed to in a seriesof

lectures.In a problemcourse,however,exposuremeanstheacquiringof an intelligent question-

ing attitudeand of some techniqueforpluggingtheleaks thatproofsare likelyto spring;in a

lecturecourse,exposuresometimes meansnotmuchmorethanlearningthenameof a theorem,

beingintimidated by itscomplicatedproof,and worrying aboutwhether it wouldappearon the

examination.

cover in a course.One cynic suggesteda formula:since,he said, studentson the average

remember onlyabout 40% of whatyou tellthem,the thingto do is to cramintoeach course

250%of whatyou hope willstick.Glib as thatis, it probablywouldnotwork.

Problemcoursesdo work.Studentswho have takenmyproblemcourseswereoftencompli-

mentedby theirsubsequentteachers.The compliments were on theiralertattitude,on their

abilityto get to the heartof the matterquickly,and on theirintelligently searchingquestions

thatshowedthattheyunderstood whatwas happeningin class.All thishappenedon morethan

one level,in calculus,in linearalgebra,in set theory,and, of course,in graduatecourseson

measuretheoryand functional analysis.

Whymustwe covereverything thatwe hope studentswillultimately learn?Even if (to stay

with an example already mentioned)we thinkthat the WeierstrassM-test is supremely

important, and thateverymathematics studentmustknowthatit existsand mustunderstand

how to applyit-even thena courseon thepertinent branchof analysismightbe betterfor

omitting it.Supposethatthereare 40 suchimportant topicsthata studentmustbe exposedto in

a term.Does itfollowthatwe mustgive40 completelecturesand hope thattheywillall sinkin?

Mightit not be betterto give 20 of the topicsjust a ten-minute mention(the name, the

statement, in whichit can be applied),and to treatthe

and an indicationof one of thedirections

other 20 in depth,by student-solved problems,student-constructed counterexamples, and

student-discovered applications?I firmlybelieve that the lattermethodteaches more and

teachesbetter.Some of thematerialdoesn'tgetcoveredbuta lot of it getsdiscovered (a telling

524 P. R. HALMOS

old pun that deservesto be kept alive), and the methodtherebyopens doors whose very

existencemightneverhavebeen suspectedbehinda solidlybuiltstructure ofsettledfacts.As for

theWeierstrass M-test,or whatever in class-well, booksandjournals

else was givenshortshrift

do exist,and studentshave been knownto read themin a pinch.

also mightnot-it mightjust be devotedto fostering the questioningattitudeand improving

techniqueby discussingproblemswidelyscatteredoverseveralfields.Such techniquecourses,

sometimes called ProblemSeminars,can existat all levels(forbeginners, forPh.D. candidates,

or foranyintermediate group).

The bestwayto conducta problemseminaris,of course,to presentproblems, butit isjust as

bad foran omniscient teacherto do all theaskingin a problemseminaras itis foran omniscient

teacherto do all thetalkingin a lecturecourse.I strongly recommend thatstudents in a problem

seminarbe encouragedto discoverproblemson theirown(at firstperhapsby slightly modifying

problemsthattheyhave learnedfromothers),and thattheyshouldbe givenpublicpraise(and

gradecredit)forsuchdiscoveries. Justas you shouldnottellyourstudentsall theanswers,you

shouldalso notask themall thequestions.One of thehardestpartsof problemsolvingis to ask

the rightquestion,and the only way to learnto do so is to practice.On the researchlevel,

especially,ifI pose a definitethesisproblemto a candidate,I am notdoingmyjob of teaching

himto do research.How willhe findhis nextproblem,whenI am no longersupervising him?

Thereis no easyway to teachsomeoneto ask good questions, just as thereis no easywayto

teachsomeoneto swimor to playthecello,butthat'sno excuseto giveup. You cannotswimfor

someoneelse; thebestyou can do is to supervisewithsympathy and reinforce therightkindof

fumbleby approval.You can give advicethatsometimes helpsto makegood questionsout of

bad ones,butthereis no substitute forrepeatedtrialand practice.

An obvioussuggestion is: generalize;a slightlyless obviousone is: specialize;a moderately

sophisticated one is: look for a non-trivial specializationof a generalization. Anotherwell-

knownpieceofadviceis due to Polya: makeit easier.(P6lya'sdictumdeservesto be propagated

overand overagain.In slightly greaterdetailit says:ifyoucannotsolvea problem,thenthereis

an easierproblemthatyoucannotsolve,and yourfirst job is to findit!) The adviceI am fondest

of is: makeit sharp.By thatI mean: do not insistimmediately on askingthenaturalquestion

("what is .. .?", "when is ... ?", "how much is ... ?"), but focus firston an easy (but nontrivial)

yes-or-noquestion ("is it ... ?").

Epilogue.I do believe that problemsare the heartof mathematics, and I hope that as

in theclassroom,in seminars,

teachers, and in thebooksand articleswe write,we willemphasize

themmore and more,and thatwe will trainour studentsto be betterproblem-posers and

problem-solversthanwe are.

References

1. H. Dorrie,100GreatProblemsofElementary Mathematics,Dover,NewYork,1965.

2. I. M. Glazmanand Ju. I. Ljubic,Finite-DimensionalLinearAnalysis:A Systematic Presentation

in

ProblemForm,MIT, Cambridge, 1974.

3. D. Hilbert,

Mathematical

problems,Bull.Amer.Math.Soc.,8 (1902)437-479.

4. G. Klambauer,Problems in Analysis,

and Propositions Dekker, NewYork,1979.

5. MathematicalDevelopmentsArisingfromHilbertProblems,AMS, Providence,1976.

6. G. PolyaandG. Szego,Problemsand.Theorems inAnalysis, Berlin,1972,1976.

Springer,

7. H. Steinhaus,

One HundredProblems in Elementary

Mathematics,BasicBooks,NewYork,1964.

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